Theodor Herzl wasn’t the first Zionist, the first to dream of a Jewish return to Palestine, but he gave that dream life.
Born in 1860 in Hungary, in what is today eastern Budapest, Herzl grew up in a secular, German-speaking Jewish family. He was, in fact, a passionate lover of German culture, and his youthful hope was that, through education, Hungarian Jews like himself could shed what he regarded as their “shameful” Jewish characteristics, acquired over centuries of poverty, humiliation and persecution, and become fully European.
In his late teens, his family moved to Vienna, where he studied law at the university and even joined a German nationalist fraternity. After a brief legal career, he became a successful Paris-based journalist and a moderately successful playwright. He didn’t write about Jewish topics.
However, although some biographers dispute this, according to Herzl himself it was in Paris that the focus of his life changed. The notorious “Dreyfus affair,” in which a French Jewish army officer — falsely accused of spying for Germany — was framed, convicted and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, convulsed France from 1894 until 1906. Prominent figures such as the great stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, the poet Anatole France, the mathematician Henri Poincare, and, most spectacularly, the novelist Emile Zola (whose vocal outrage brought the government’s wrath down upon him, forcing him into hasty English exile), denounced the blatant anti-Semitism of the case. Eventually, Captain Dreyfus was exonerated. But Theodor Herzl later recalled mobs outside his hotel during the trial, chanting “Death to the Jews!” Concluding that anti-Semitism would never go away, that it could only be fled, and that, therefore, an independent Jewish state was urgently necessary, he embraced Zionism and his own Jewish identity.
In 1896, he published a short but pivotal book titled “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”), contending that Jews should leave Europe for Argentina or, even better, for their historic homeland in Palestine. There, free from bigots, they would be able to practice their religion and express their culture without oppression. (Late in life, Herzl also considered the east African territory of Uganda as a possible Jewish homeland.)
Enormously influential from the start, his book was also controversial. Many secular Jews feared that Zionism endangered their efforts to integrate into European society. (They didn’t see Hitler coming.) Many religious Jews saw in it as an attempt to usurp the role of God and the Messiah. (Jewish opposition would shortly prevent Herzl’s first Zionist Congress from meeting in Munich.) To Herzl, though, Zionism was the Jews’ only realistic hope.
“The Jewish question,” he wrote, “persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilised countries.”
“We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live,” he said, “seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes superloyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens.”
Although his congress finally convened in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, electing him president, Herzl never saw his dream realized. He died of heart disease in 1904, shortly after his 44th birthday, and was buried in Vienna. “I wish to be buried in the vault beside my father,” he declared in his will, “and to lie there till the Jewish people shall take my remains to Israel.”14 comments on this story
In many respects, his short life must have seemed a failure. His widow died only three years after him. She was cremated and her ashes were misplaced. Of the three children produced by their unhappy marriage, one died of a heroin overdose, another by suicide, and the third was executed in the Nazi death camp at Theresienstadt. In 1946, his only grandchild jumped to his death from Washington, D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue Bridge.
In 1949, a year after Israel’s founding, Theodor Herzl’s remains were moved from Austria to Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, which had been named in his honor.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.